Posted by Mark Rose
Rose’s Week in Review: 10-07-07
In the 80’s, 90’s and the earlier part of this century Burson-Marsteller had a stellar reputation. It was the gold standard, the McKinsey of PR. Burson execs were built of special stock, seemingly smarter, richer, working on cool, high-level stuff with big budgets. Burson was the perennial top-dog in billings, its prestige, even when attacked, unquestioned. If you had deep pockets and you wanted the best and the brightest, you hired Burson. What happened?
In the 9-30-07 Week in Review I commented on Burson’s flagrant Astroturfing for Microsoft. Not disclosing the client you are working for or its agenda or intentions is obviously unethical. Refusing to acknowledge, discuss or correct your misdeeds is bad, reputation-damaging PR and indicative of the sort of defensive arrogance that big PR agencies suffer from today. Sadly, Burson fits neatly in that category.
Harold Burson told the following to The Australian in 1998: "I'm totally opposed to front organizations that do not disclose where their funding comes from and to my knowledge - we're a big company - we have never started or organized a group where the funding sponsorship was unknown."
Harold Burson has a blog that supposedly “discusses issues related to communications and reputation.” So, I left a comment on Mr. Burson’s blog last week politely asking if he could offer perspective on the news about Microsoft and Burson. I guess he has no perspective since my comment never appeared. So much for the new “transparency” or the conversation we are supposed to be having through blogs.
The bad news keeps piling up for Burson. In a story for Salon called "Countrywide puts lipstick on the pig," Andrew Leonard takes issue with Burson’s “crisis management” work for the giant, troubled mortgage lender. It seems that the CEO of Countrywide pocketed $138 million last year while 12,000 Countrywide workers were about to be fired. Burson’s response to this is an exhortation for Countrywide employees to fight back and stand strong in the face adversity. The talking points for the “Protect Our House” crusade that Burson concocted are so bizarre that it would make for interesting fiction if it were not true.
Now, Blackwater has hired Burson to put a positive gloss on gun-toting, outside-the-law vigilantes who siphon off hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to wage a private war in Iraq. I am sure that Burson has a ready-made defense for accepting this client – everybody deserves representation, and all that – but the reality is that Burson is part of WPP Group plc and the parent company demands constant escalation of the revenue stream. And you can bet that Blackwater has very deep pockets, thanks to our tax money. The equation has a perverse elegance when you think about it: We pay Blackwater over $800 million to shoot first and ask questions later, and they pay Burson a few million to tell us what we should really think about it. Isn’t PR beautiful?
Burson’s refusal to take responsibility for its actions or engage the public threatens to overshadow some of its good work. Erin Byrne, Chief Digital Strategist for Burson, is a regular contributor to the Digital Perspective blog. In a recent post, she noted the firms’ work on behalf of the new $5 bill. The website and flash demo expertly demonstrates how the web can be used to convey messages and images where words alone, and traditional media relations outreach, might fail. Burson should win an award for this work and the rest of us, if we’re smart, can learn a few things from the intelligent, web-based presentation of this news.
Can’t somebody in the Burson digital group impress upon the rest of the firm that we are living in the digital age, the age of involvement and dialogue, the age of transparency? Or haven’t they heard?
Mark Rose is editor of PRBlogNews - a web publication focusing on public relations practices in the digital age.
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Great take on setting up front companies and its damaging impact on the reputation of our industry. However, I would like to know what your thoughts are on PR firms working on behalf of the US government to position "front opposition" groups that are US friendly. Is it patriotism or is it blatant imperialism? Fine line mi amigo, fine line.
While I do not condone Burson's techniques in this case the practice of putting words in the right client's mouth to be printed in the right channel is an age-old PR tactic and I'm not convinced that this practice can be pigeon-hold into...your take about, "Not disclosing the client you are working for or its agenda or intentions is obviously unethical." I believe there are many instances where when creating news that benefits your client that it is much more important for the client to make news, not the PR organziation behind the client.
In regard to Blackwater, it is probably a lot more complicated than we know. Unless you have some inside knowledge of the situation, to make claims that Blackwater is "gun-toting, outside-the-law vigilantes who siphon off hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to wage a private war in Iraq," may be a bit harsh. To advocate or denigrate Burson's position on the matter may be premature at best and ignorant of the facts at worst.
Although, I know that Strumpette prides itself on stirring the pot, as do its contributors and in the end that's what makes it fun.
From the Beach Chair,
Matt Gentile (FloridaMoves.com - 300 Days of Sunshine)
Astroturfing is unethical and should be banned. Harold Burson said Burson-Marsteller would never do it. Do they now want to defend the practice?
Blackwater is a war-for-hire scarier than hell Christian fundamentalist out of control group of vigilante thugs. Is that too harsh? Just don't get in their way. Who is ignorant of the facts?
BAGHDAD, Oct. 7 — The Iraqi prime minister’s office said Sunday that the government’s investigation had determined that Blackwater USA private security guards who shot Iraqi civilians three weeks ago in a Baghdad square sprayed gunfire in nearly every direction, committed “deliberate murder” and should be punished accordingly.
In 1997, Erik Prince founded Blackwater USA, expanding the family's Christian conservative empire into private security and war for hire. Erik is a former U.S. Navy SEAL and son of the late billionaire automotive parts supplier, Edgar.
WASHINGTON, Oct. 1 — A Blackwater USA employee under investigation in the killing last December of an Iraqi bodyguard in an off-duty confrontation was so drunk after fleeing the shooting that another group of guards took away the loaded pistol he was fumbling with, a report to a House committee said Monday.
Employees of Blackwater USA have engaged in nearly 200 shootings in Iraq since 2005, in a vast majority of cases firing their weapons from moving vehicles without stopping to count the dead or assist the wounded, according to a new report from Congress.
Sounds pretty damaging I'll have to admit. I'm no friend of the radical right, but I've spent enough time in the middle east, and dealing with issues in that part of the world, to know first hand that what appears in print is not the whole story.
Blackwater sounds like they take their recruits right out of the gates frome Pope AFB and Fort Bragg and put them to work in the private sector making a lot more money. In regard to oversite of these private armies, it looks as though the USG is now getting into the act, after the fact of course.
In terms of astroturfing, I see the ethical dilemma, but I just can't force myself to purge it as an effective propaganda technique. At times we must put words in the mouths of those leaders who will serve our country's interests - it's just reality.
Thank you for your research and candor.
From the beach chair,
Matt Gentile (www.floridamoves.com - 300 days of sunshine)
Hey, Matt, here’s my clearest distinction between Astroturfing and what we do – we constantly speak for people, put words in the mouths of others. If we did not do that we would not be in business. Hell, I once wrote a Bar Mitzvah speech for a client – he couldn’t speak to his 13 year old boy, imagine that. It went something like: So, today you become a man. He loved it.
Astroturfing is different. Astroturfing is intentionally creating a dummy organization, disguising its source of funding or its true intent, and perpetrating fraud by way of misrepresentation. It’s ugly, it’s based on a lie, and it would be illegal if the industry was regulated, and by any stretch, even Harold Burson’s, it should not be done. Burson got caught and outed by mainstream media (MSM) and then they blasted a red letter exclaimer on their concocted web site and were dutifully chagrined. They should at least be spanked.
By the way, I saw your comment on Buzz Bin idiot’s blog. Yeah, we have to stick up for Strumpette, especially in light of the parroted idiocy on these supposed media/marketing/PR blogs that all sound like canned ephemera from the most useless reaches of your mind.
Maybe it’s late and I’m babbling but it’s worse than I thought. I miss Strumpette! Will we be stuck with Geoff Livingston, Jeremy Pepper and Shel Holtz as thought leaders? Mercy, mercy.
Maybe there is hope, maybe the inmates can reclaim the asylum. Let’s take over this listing ship. You be the Florida bureau chief for Strumpette, and I’ll handle New York. Surely, there must be SOMETHING interesting going on in Florida PR …. All that sunshine and the property values dropping … the suicide rate must be going through the roof on the house nobody can afford. How do you spin that?
THOUGHT FOR THE DAY:
HOW DO YOU KNOW YOU’VE GONE TOO FAR UNTIL YOU GO THERE?